“Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge” by Ted Conover
Ted Conover immerses himself in the communities of the San Luis Valley in Colorado to tell the tale of off-gridders living at America’s edge. Conover begins as an outsider volunteering for La Puenta, a rural outreach nonprofit in Alamosa, before acquiring his own property and settling into the community. From families trying to make it on their own to people fleeing the feds, Conover encounters many different walks of life while on the flats. As varied as the demographic may be, everyone came in common pursuit: to discover their version of the American Dream, one as wild as their imaginations.
“Sometimes living on the prairie felt like taking blinders off.” P. 166
You say you were drawn to the flats because of the lack of law enforcement, the wildness and the landscape’s overall resemblance to Mad Max. Why was that appealing to you?
Anyone drawn to wild places can appreciate the beauty of the San Luis Valley, the wide-open spaces, the small number of people—that’s not too hard to understand. The thing that attracted me, in addition, is the presence of people living this hard-to-know American lifestyle. People are choosing to live in isolation on the prairie on a shoestring and putting up with all of the challenges of being off-grid, all in exchange for freedom. I saw pictures of humble dwellings and didn’t know that existed in Colorado. People were living in wrecked RVs or sheds with plywood additions—it’s not what you associate with “Colorado mountain life.” This tapped into my question about if I would be happy living alone in the wilderness as well as my curiosity about the community.
Could you briefly describe your book and its overarching message?
The message is that it is possible to get to know and appreciate people from across a vast social divide if you put some effort into it. Despite all the schisms in our political scene people aren’t so different. I really enjoyed spending time on the flats because it is so different. The great thing about the States is there are still places to buy land for cheap and fashion your own life. It’s amazing that one of the best places to do that is here in Colorado, which people don’t think of as cheap at all.
You mention that getting your neighbor Paul mental health help was one of your proudest accomplishments on the flats. What is the general tone toward mental health and therapy?
The general feeling is people wish there was more therapy available. The Valley has very little coverage. Paul is not shy when it comes to talking about his struggles and anxieties. The first thing he said when he introduced himself to me was, “Hi, I’m Paul and I’m gay.” Luke, another friend and neighbor, has autism and problems with his heart, so he has to go all the way to Salida to see a doctor. It’s not like you would imagine a conservative community 50 years ago. People in far-flung areas are now connected to the same popular culture and enlightened ideas like the benefits of therapy, making it pretty widely accepted.
A common tension in your book is between the desire for solitude and the need for company. Can you explain why this is?
There are people who get lonely despite heading out there to be alone. Lots of people who can’t see each other’s homesteads communicate through Facebook Messenger. They are posting all the time actually. People know each other who are miles apart and get in each other business. There’s always drama and gossip between neighbors. The Valley is not a constellation of hermits—there is a lot of back and forth. It’s nice to be alone, but it’s hard.
You talk about the supernatural activity in the area, confirmed by the government and astrobiologists in addition to members of the community. Can you describe some of those occurrences? Have you personally experienced anything like this?
The Valley is famous for UFO sightings. There is even the UFO Watchtower on Highway 17, also called The Cosmic Highway. Worldly and well-educated people I met there tended to have personal experiences or close calls with UFOs. I never saw a UFO, but I did see a mutilated cow. These cattle have a square incision in their behinds through which their internal organs have been removed. It definitely doesn’t look like the work of an animal and there are no human tracks around it. People also talk about two spinning vortexes. Why the Valley has so much supernatural activity, I don’t know—maybe because the sky is so big. I also met a lot of people in the valley who are seeking alternative therapy and religion outside the mainstream. People said you have to want to experience the supernatural, welcome it in, so maybe that is part of it. I found this a plus because I like being around people who are open to riddles and mystery.
The book concludes with a mediation on fences and walls. The wide-open nature of the flats is what makes it difficult to live—very few resources and lots of wind and weather. But is it also why people want to live there?
Definitely. It represents freedom in the popular imagination and the lived experience. There is something great about driving for miles without a stop light—a sense of enfettered movement and freedom from restriction. The sky is so big you can see different weather happening at the same time. If it’s not how you like it now, drive in that direction, or just be patient and it will change. There is something magical and liberating in that for me.